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Greening Up the Slackers: In Search of the Gen-X Garden

by Scott Calhoun

Over the past year, I’ve been traveling around the interior West, speaking to gardening groups, and as I scan my audiences, I’ve become worried that the demographics of gardening do not bode well for the future of America’s favorite pastime. I consider myself a passionate garden designer with a progressive approach aimed squarely at youthful thinkers, but at many engagements, I look around a room and find that, at a not-so-young 39, I’m the youngest person in the room. One could conclude that my material is not compelling to young gardeners; but when attending lectures delivered by better known and more charismatic gardening evangelists than myself, I encounter the same issue.

My generation is dropping the trowel. The paucity of youth at gardening events leads me to believe we are the entitled, lazy, sitcom addicts from broken homes clinging to the apron strings of the baby boomers that the media says we are—at least when it comes to gardening. We are spoiled string-cheese-eating kids who are scared to get our fingers dirty. We have ignored our elders and thumbed our noses at the great gardeners who would be our mentors; I’m beginning to wonder what will become of the gardening world after the boomers are gone.

Pot with cactus and poppies.
  Totem pole cactus and Mexican gold poppy against 'Ripe Pear' window seal.

As a garden designer and garden writer in the Southwest, an area with lots of retiree inflow, I sometimes feel as though my work consists of separating the so-called greatest generation from their last gardening dollars. Just like the Eternal Lawns Cemetery, my slogan could be, “I can design your final garden.” These gardens, while lucrative for me, often lack a certain vigor, and well . . . youth, because of restrictions imposed by aging clients and tyrannical homeowners associations that control everything from what species of plants you can plant to what color you can paint your walls. Gardens built with too many freedoms curtailed often fall short of artistry.

I’ve come to think that many of the great gardeners of the greatest generation didn’t move to Arizona or Florida. They weren’t looking for an easier lifestyle. Their retirement consisted of working the land to the end. My grandfather, Richard Graehl, was a case in point; he gardened right up until the end of his life. His retirement resulted in a masterfully planted five acres of corn, squash, berries, and alfalfa that kept him occupied in all but the coldest months when the soil was unworkable. Like many of his generation, gardening for Grandpa was a food production activity and ornamental gardening was purely recreation—one that he had precious little time for.

The boomers, on the other hand, know how to recreate; if you asked them, they would likely tell you that their generation invented recreation. When it comes to gardening, they are all about ornamentation. Sure, they buy organic veggies, but grow their own food? Please! Boomers wedge gardening between shiatsu massages and new age shaman consultations. Not only do they have amusing stories to tell about their counterculture days, they have money, like plants, and are not afraid to buck the status quo a little. One of best things about working with them is that they are open to new ideas. With boomers, gardening is moving forward, but what about us? What about Generation X?

Our slacker generation, Gen X uses the converse argument: “Because we don’t have any free time, we don’t want to spend much of it gardening.” Yes, time is a problem. We are working more hours than our parents did; we have kids; we live in generic suburbs. I understand all this, but come on, people. Can’t we muster a few creative gardens? Are we so removed from our agricultural roots that we’re nonplussed by the green side of the world? Doesn’t the constant buzz of technology make us want to stick our hands, and maybe our heads, in some compost?

I think ours is the best-equipped generation ever to do bold things in our gardens. After all, we are a generation that embraces change. We invented punk music, video games, and computers. We took junior high typing classes using manual typewriters only to move wholesale to computers in college. We supported the move from vinyl to compact disc and from CD to mp3. We moved from film to digital cameras and from handwriting to email. We rarely complained or made a fuss—we just changed.

Barrio home with turquoise walls.
Turquoise wall and Indian fig cactus in Tucson's Barrio Historico.  

We were also raised in a more design-conscious world. Crate & Barrel and IKEA catalogs became our favorite bathroom reading. We don’t see style as a luxury, but as an essential part of who we are. Although we have largely given up status symbols like clothing embroidered with the Ralph Lauren polo horse, do not be deceived; we care a lot about what we wear and how we arrange our homes for living. Extending this proclivity to the outdoors doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch to me.

Like gifted children who are bored with everything, we have the skills but are slow to apply ourselves. I think this is mainly because we’re turned off by the old ways of gardening (i.e. gigantic lawns, excessive water use, chemical bombardment, and fussy plants). To me, the traditional American way of gardening seems silly and wasteful and generally out of place; I surmise that other Xer’s must feel the same way. So, while recognizing that there are many ways to get the young interested in gardening, I have a simple—and practically foolproof—recipe to follow. It’s a simple binary formula: bold colors and wild plants equal rock-and-roll gardens. World-renowned landscape architect Steve Martino boils down the genius of his work with bright colored walls and native plants to this same formula: “walls and weeds.” Walls and weeds are a remedy for blandness and a call to action among my slacking peers who seem to be fixated on Victoria’s Secret commercials, Seinfeld reruns, and eBay auctions. Snap out of it! Let’s get painting and planting!

Bold Color

Color powers and enlivens gardens. I’m not talking about the petunias and pansies that are sometimes referred to as “color;” I mean paint. Big architectural plants, which form the backbone of exciting gardens, need a stage or backdrop, and color-drenched walls are often exactly what is required. Colored walls are the garden design equivalent of putting a dancer in a neon pink leotard in front of a black velvet curtain—her silhouette pops out in relief. Young gardeners should be happy to jettison a palette of puritanical pastels for colors that flex their muscle and highlight the structural mettle of Dr. Seuss-style succulent plants.

If you think that color, in the form of paint, is simply window-dressing in a garden, consider the great spiritual and emotional pull of color. The great Russian modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote, “Orange is like a man, convinced of his own powers.” Of red, he wrote, “Red rings inwardly with a determined and powerful intensity. It glows in itself, maturely, and does not distribute its vigor aimlessly.” On the color of the western sky, blue, Kandinsky says that it is the color of profound meaning. Our desert sands and rocks are blood-red, vermillion, and coral tinged with chartreuse lichens, these rocks are our guide to coloring our gardens.

Plants with purple wall.
  Lupine and desert spoon against a cobalt blue wall.

In our gardens, we need to take the color of the sky reflected in a desert stream, the fiery red crown of the Gila woodpecker, the screaming orange of a Mexican gold poppy, and selectively, with an artist’s intentions, paint those colors on a few of our garden walls.

In her book The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy points out that in humans, 70 percent of our brainpower is used for vision. Meloy calls vision, “this tyrant of the senses.” Put a weak color in a garden and watch it recede to the blandness. Already largely oblivious to continental gardening traditions, young gardeners need to flex their color muscles, and they can do it with painted walls.

For a while, I considered the use of bold color on garden walls part of the desert garden design bag of tricks, but lately I’m more and more convinced that this will work anywhere. At the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma County, California, acclaimed garden designer Topher Delaney has constructed a garden consisting of a gravel-filled courtyard planted with white-trunked sycamore trees. As a backdrop for the trees, she uses a giant curtain of blue.

After looking at Delaney’s exhibit, I began to think about eastern gardeners planting white birch and witch alder and yellow-twig dogwood against blue walls. Or perhaps spicebush or a pagoda dogwood tree sidled up to turquoise seat wall. Adding snow and fall color to the design mix only seemed to increase the impact that a colored wall could have when combined with the spectacular plants of the Eastern deciduous forest. Yes, Martha Stewart devotees might question your taste and call for more subdued tones, but when you explain that you’re carving out a niche for your own previously black-thumbed generation in the gardening world, they are likely to be mollified.

The Martha followers should really be proud of you. Bold color is not an American tradition limited to the Western half of the continent; consider Fletcher Steele’s Blue Steps at Naumkeag in Massachusetts, which combine cobalt blue and paper birches in a way that can only be described as daring.

Columnar cactus against red wall.
Snow pole cactus against terra cotta wall at Tohono Chul Park's Desert Living Courtyard.  

Wild Plants Equal Wildly Fun Gardens

Gen-Xers are environmentalists at heart, so lacing up our hiking boots isn’t too much to ask. Some gardeners have a favorite steel shovel, cultivator, or pair of Swiss pruners, but my favorite garden tool is worn on my feet. For young gardeners, hiking boots are one of the best gardening tools. Hiking puts potential slacker gardeners in situ with wild plants. If gardening were more like hiking, or if being in your backyard felt like being out on a hike, more Xers would do it.

One of the best things about hiking and botanizing is observing the natural patterns of how things grow best. If we see coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea) hanging onto a rocky slope in the shade, we just might get the idea that coral bells like a shady well drained spot in the garden. It is this day-to-day association with wild plants that engenders respect for them, and hiking through a forest or desert is a fine and pleasurable way to make that acquaintance. It works like this: view the natural world, note it, photograph it, adapt it to your garden, find it at a nursery, buy it, and plant it.

Thankfully, the nursery industry has come around to the idea of growing and selling native and drought-tolerant plants that can make even the most self-righteous Whole Foods-shopping, Prius-driving, Sierra Clubbing Xer feel like gardening is a guilt-free activity.

Many of the wild plants, especially in the Southwest, are so iconographic and bold that they are more like sculpture than flora. This appeals to our contemporary design and IKEA catalog sensibilities: edited, clean, modern, sculptural. Using bold plants is a great way for Xers to sweep out the clutter of and reinvent our gardening selves. Why not start with plants? In my desert region, the ocotillo, the saguaro, the prickly pear, cholla and yucca can be arranged to preside over a desert garden without sucking out groundwater at an unsustainable rate.

Plants with purple wall at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
  Purple walled garden at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

In cooler and wetter climes, many bold plants can easily be incorporated into gardens. I know a Massachusetts gardener who overwinters a bevy of agaves in a south-facing window just to enjoy their spiky personalities outside in the warm months. Even planted outside and in the ground, there are cold hardy prickly pear cactus and yucca plants that will thrive in nearly every condition.

Even for those who recoil at the idea of plants with stickers, there is plenty of pizzazz to be found in the world of ornamental grasses and spiky perennials. Slackers can create a tour de force by combining plants like gayfeather and blue oat grass, purple prairie clover and blue grama, firecracker penstemon and deer grass. Ornamental grasses are the new gardening wave that Xers should be riding.

If Gen-Xers are at all interested in making art of their gardens, and I believe that they are, there is no better place to start than with underused American plants. When choosing plants for youthful gardens, we would be wise to take Ezra Pound’s advice to young artists and “make the world strange.”

Instead of piercing and tattooing so many of our body parts to get attention, why not just grow some strange plants against big colored walls. Put a big Medusa’s head euphorbia (Euphorbia esculenta) out on the porch and you’re sure to at least get a few “that’s interesting” type comments from your neighbors. If the Medusa’s head isn’t strange enough, you could go with the curiosity plant.

Nolina and palo blanco against pink and purple wall.
Nolina and palo blanco against a pink and purple wall at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  

My New Gen-X Garden

As you can see, I’m ready to create these gardens, I’m just waiting for the right Gen-X clients to ring, email, or scream. Since the only voice screaming for this sort of garden seems to be me, I’ve decided to do the sensible thing and listen to the voices in my head.

I’ve been designing a new garden in a courtyard outside my office, and in it I hope to marry plants and paint to create spaces of tranquility and clarity and a little Gen-X attitude. Designing a garden for yourself rather than someone else is a sublime pleasure and something I believe that most people are capable of; all it takes is a willingness to make spectacular mistakes. In this respect, I am brimming with talent, as are many of my contemporaries.

This new garden is based on the color blue. I’ve been studying the gardens at Majorelle in Morocco, the blue walls of Steve Martino and Carrie Nimmer, and a blue walled courtyard garden at the Antique Rose Emporium in San Antonio, Texas, where owner Mike Shoup combined yuccas with blue paint to excellent effect. Frida Khalo’s garden, at least as presented in the film Frida, has also caught my eye. I’m seeing and thinking blue. Again, Ellen Maloy’s book, The Anthropology of Turquoise, has piqued my imagination and caused me to consider the combination of rock and sky, and of rock the color of sky (turquoise).

Scott Calhoun.
  Scott Calhoun, whose sweaters are nearly as wild as his gardens.

I drew my garden on paper. The perimeter of the garden is defined by a wall of corrugated steel, painted blue, its channels running horizontally. Against this backdrop, I’ll plant large silver-beaked yuccas and a desert museum palo verde tree, whose yellow blossoms would stand out like stars against the blue fence. The shape of the space, two rectangles, would be separated by a low ocotillo fence, making two distinct rooms. Like a Persian garden, a small central fountain would be centrally located. The fountain would consist of a sunken steel box with a bubbling urn sitting atop two salvaged steel storm grates. In an L-shape around the fountain, a flagstone bench and pedestals define the space. In various spots around the garden, I’ll place recycled blue and green steel drums that I poked holes in using the pointed end of a 17-pound digging bar. In these drums, I plan on locating bold desert specialties like ocotillos, elephant trees, and agaves.

A Call to Shovels

My admonition to my fellow Xers is this: put down the high-fructose, corn syrup-based drink in your hand and the Xbox remote control, and go out into your backyard. Look at it with new eyes: think about how you might make your yard a reflection of your fast-paced, highly designed, and highly interesting life. Get out there and start painting and planting. Let’s show the boomers how it’s done: grow a vine on a trellis of rusted bed springs; make a bullet-riddled propane tank a sculpture, and plant a white-trunked tree against a wall the color of deep water—like a snowy egret in a pool of cobalt glass.


A self-described “desert plant fiend,” Scott Calhoun enjoys exploring the deserts of Arizona and Mexico seeking interesting plants, gardens, and transcendent fish tacos. He gets much of his design inspiration from badlands and taco stands, a style which Sunset magazine dubbed “Taqueria Chic.” Scott writes, lectures, and designs gardens in Tucson, Arizona. His first book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand, has been awarded the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award. His newest book is Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens. Catch up with Scott at www.zonagardens.com.
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All photographs, including title background photo— Mexican bush sage against an 'Imperial Palace Yellow' wall—by Scott Calhoun.


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